Daphne Oram's Wonderful World of Sound

In 1983, the BBC published a retrospective about “the first 25 years” of the by-then globally famous BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Written by co-founder Desmond Briscoe, the book was celebratory yet unavoidably biased, not least in how relatively little space was given over in the early chapters to co-founder Daphne Oram. This new play, written by Paul Brotherston and Isobel McArthur, is clearly an attempt to rebalance the history books in her favour.

it does display the physical skills of the all-male ensemble who brilliantly play all the characters which Isobel McArthur’s prim Daphne Oram encounters during her story.

Yet it’s also honest enough to suggest that, while “the Workshop” is arguably what Daphne’s now best remembered for, it certainly didn’t work out as she’d hoped. Daphne had campaigned for at least six years for the Corporation to start experimenting with the creation of electronic music and sound. During the course of the play, we’re shown numerous examples of the blatant sexism and casual conservatism that stood in her way. Even when the go-ahead was reluctantly given, sufficient resources were not; and the Workshop was expected “to pay its way”, serving other BBC departments and “composing to order”.

It certainly wasn’t the “laboratory of sound” in which Daphne could experiment for experiment’s sake, and she resigned from the BBC a year after the Workshop’s founding. It would be another woman, albeit one equally interested in sounds and their manipulation, who would put the Workshop on the map, when Delia Derbyshire “realised” Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme in 1963. Yet Delia also ultimately became disenchanted by the BBC’s bureaucratic mindset, leaving to carry on her own work. That’s another story, though; not least because, according to this play, and unlike Daphne, Delia did decide to work with Paul McCartney!

This new production from Glasgow-based ensemble Blood of the Young, part of Tron Theatre’s Mayfesto season, attempts to tell Daphne’s story with theatrical equivalents of the tape-manipulation techniques she helped pioneer during her time with the Workshop. The heightened, sometimes staggered choreography between scenes doesn’t always work, however; it’s at best distracting, at worst verging on the laughable, undermining the mood previous scenes have spent time and effort to build. Yet it does display the physical skills of the all-male ensemble who brilliantly play all the characters which Isobel McArthur’s prim Daphne Oram encounters during her story.

There are laughs, if relatively few quiet moments, but with Daphne Oram presented as self-aware narrator of her own story, ready to deny her status as an originator, there’s an emotional distance which leaves us untouched by Daphne’s belief that “Life is a process of clarifying your own waveform.” There’s much to enjoy here, not least Anneke Kampman’s live sound score, but the final result verges on less than the sum of its parts. 

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The Blurb

Live-scored by electronic sound artist Anneke Kampman, Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound is a journey through the amazing life of one of the great, unsung composers of the twentieth century.

One of the most distinctive composers of her generation, Daphne Oram cut a trailblazing path through uncharted musical territory. In 1942 a seventeen-year-old Daphne attended a séance which inspired her to forge a career in music. This led to her co-founding and becoming the first director of the world-famous BBC Radiophonic Workshop, (birth-place of many of television’s early Sci-Fi themes, such as Doctor Who).

In a career spanning more than 30 years, she worked with opera singers, classical composers and rock and roll stars. She released several records, influenced the teaching of music in schools, wrote a book on her personal sound philosophy (An Individual Note) and continued always to pursue innovation, learning and teaching her craft - often as the only woman in that professional environment.

Programmed as part of Mayfesto 2017.

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